I am beginning to see the outlines of an argument. Our tendency to focus on the last six months of Col. Robert Gould Shaw’s military career in command of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry has left us with an incomplete and even distorted view of his place in Civil War memory. We tend to see his parents, specifically his mother, as pushing him to see the necessity of recruiting African Americans into the army thus transforming the very purpose of the Union war effort.
But the more I read, the more I am beginning to think that Shaw’s core view of the war, which was forged before he accepted command of the 54th, changed little before his death in July 1863. We need to remember that Shaw spent over a year as an officer in the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. It was during this time that he learned how to command others and lead them into battle. Shaw’s understanding of the purpose of the war as well as his perceptions of the enemy and African Americans also took shape during this period.
Shaw’s parents were fervent supporters of the Lincoln administration and the Republican Party throughout the war, but Robert may have been more influenced on a number of fronts by his interactions with fellow officers in the 2nd Mass, many of whom were fervent Democrats. One of the things that I am currently working on is a political profile of the regiment as a way to better understand Shaw’s own correspondence.
Here is one example. Shaw expressed support for General George B. McClellan even after he was removed from command in October 1862. He shared his thoughts about “Little Mac” with his family, including his mother and father who called for his removal earlier that year.
Among his fellow officers I have found strong support for McClellan, including Captain Edward Abbott, who commanded Company A.
There are many fearful rumors afloat that Gen. McClellan is to be removed from his command. I can’t believe the President to be so foolish but should it happen, then every officer should at once resign… The fact is that Washington politics are beginning to get afraid of McClellan. He is growing too big & he is besides a Democrat. After the Republicans had brought the country to the verge of ruin, they were obliged to call a Democrat to the helm and now when he has rescued the country from destruction and almost subdued the rebels, they strive to throw him over… It is rather singular that the two great generals of this war McClellan & Halleck are Democrats. The soldiers all love McClellan and are angry that he is being hampered that his commands are being taken away from him… The whole hope of the country is upon him at Yorktown. [April 20, 1862, Camp near Sparta, Va]
I don’t want to make too much from one example. Again, the goal is to better understand the extent to which Shaw’s own thoughts correspond with his fellow officers in the regiment and Democratic support. From there I hope to be on firmer ground in assessing the extent to which Shaw’s thoughts on a range of issues evolved during the period he was in command of the 54th.[Image source: Officers of the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at Camp Andrew, MHS]